Washington With scientists at odds about the risks of a chemical found in plastic baby bottles, metal cans and other food packaging, the government on Tuesday gave consumers some tips on how to reduce their exposure to BPA even as it said the substance is safe.
A Food and Drug Administration advisory committee met as a major study linked bisphenol A to possible risks of heart disease and diabetes. The scientific debate could drag on for years.
"Right now, our tentative conclusion is that it's safe, so we're not recommending any change in habits," said Laura Tarantino, head of the FDA's office of food additive safety. But she acknowledged, "there are a number of things people can do to lower their exposure."
For example, consumers can avoid plastic containers imprinted with the recycling number '7,' as many of those contain BPA. Or, Tarantino said, they can avoid warming food in such containers, as heat helps to release the chemical.
More than 90 percent of Americans have traces of BPA in their bodies, but the FDA says the levels of exposure are too low to pose a health risk, even for infants and children. Other scientists, however, say BPA has been shown to affect the human body even at very low levels.
And Tuesday a study released by the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested a new concern about BPA. Using a health survey of nearly 1,500 adults, the study found that those exposed to higher amounts of BPA were more likely to report having heart disease and diabetes. Because of the possible public health implications, the results "deserve scientific follow-up," its authors said.
The study is preliminary, far from proof that the chemical caused the health problems. Two Dartmouth College analysts of medical research said it raises questions but provides no answers about whether the ubiquitous chemical is harmful.
FDA officials said they are not dismissing such findings. "We recognize the need to resolve the concerning questions that have been raised," said Tarantino, acknowledging that more research is needed. But the FDA is also arguing that the studies with rats and mice it relied on for its assessment are more thorough than some of the human research that has raised doubts.
The agency has asked an outside scientific panel for a second opinion on BPA's safety, and the medical journal article was released to coincide with the advisers' hearing. The FDA has the power to ban or limit use of BPA in food containers and medical devices.
The FDA advisory panel is expected to make its recommendations to the FDA late next month.
BPA is used in hardened plastics and in a wide range of consumer goods, including the lining of metal cans, eyeglass lenses and compact discs. Many scientists believe it can act like the hormone estrogen, and animal studies have linked it with breast, prostate and reproductive system problems and some cancers.
The American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group, said the study is flawed, has substantial limitations and proves nothing.
But Dr. Ana Soto of Tufts University said the study raises enough concerns to warrant government action to limit BPA exposure.
"We shouldn't wait until further studies are done in order to act in protecting humans," said Soto, who has called for more restrictions in the past.